McNair makes offense suddenly look legit

On the Ravens

August 12, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

It's only one preseason game, so you can't get too carried away.

The Ravens played quarterback Steve McNair only one series, and he scored on a 6-yard scramble for a touchdown. You can't get too carried away by that, either. But for the first time in quite a while, the Ravens looked like a real offensive football team.

They did some good things. They looked fast. They weren't one-dimensional. They weren't predictable. They sprayed the ball around to several receivers, and they kept the New York Giants off-balance, at least for one series.

It was a good start, one that the Ravens can build on, especially if they stay healthy.

For the first time in three years, you get a sense that the Ravens will have a competitive offense, will score some points, and the defense will finally get a chance to catch a collective breath on game days.

Amen.

Let's be realistic about last night. The Giants were without three defensive starters, including two great players in defensive end Michael Strahan and linebacker LaVar Arrington. Both are impact players who can change a game with one play.

But the Ravens were impressive. They opened up in a three-receiver set. They went with two tight ends, and then used Daniel Wilcox as an H-back. They sent tight end Todd Heap in motion, sometimes sending him outside, which caused confusion among the Giants.

And here's something the Ravens have rarely done: They ran halfback Jamal Lewis out of the one-back set without a fullback. In the past, the Ravens had little choice but to play power football with Lewis, but now they have options.

The big difference is McNair. The quiet confidence this team has in him has been hanging around since the June mini-camps. Teams could crowd the line of scrimmage against the Ravens because they dared former starting quarterback Kyle Boller to beat them.

That won't happen anymore, not early in the season anyway.

"I was kind of anxious to see how they were going to line up against us," Lewis said. "Kind of waiting to see what kind of reaction we get out of defenses with Steve McNair back there with his experience and with his presence.

"They backed out, they looked kind of honest, so we were able to play things 50-50."

McNair doesn't have the snap in his passes that he once had, but at least he is accurate. It's nice to have a quarterback who leads his receivers, who has a decent touch. And most of all, McNair doesn't panic. He is extremely patient going through his progressions. It's an entirely different team with McNair in the huddle compared to Boller.

The only quarterback controversy in Baltimore is for the No. 2 job. You could feel and see the air leave this offense when McNair came out of the game.

In his brief appearance, McNair used all of the Ravens' weapons, and this team has several. On the Ravens' first scoring drive, Lewis had runs of 5, 13 and 7 yards. He made good cuts, but more importantly he squared his shoulders going through the holes at the line of scrimmage.

That didn't happen much a season ago.

McNair threw to receiver Mark Clayton, and also to Derrick Mason. He found Heap over the middle a couple of times for big gains. These weren't the dink and dunks we have seen for years, but a mixture of long, intermediate and short passes. In that 12-play scoring drive, the Ravens had a good mix of five passes and seven rushing attempts.

Beautiful.

You never take too much away from a preseason game. Coaches and players approach them differently. But teams come away with ambitions and foundations to build on. The Ravens have a quarterback now who doesn't just have to manage the game but can make enough big plays to win. They have two solid, possession-type receivers in Mason and Clayton. If he touches the ball five or six times a game, even on short passes or reverses, Clayton has big-play potential.

Lewis looks solid as a runner, and if he struggles, there is veteran Mike Anderson behind him. There is also fourth-year running back Musa Smith, who has performed as well as Anderson since training camp started. The Ravens need to find a legitimate lead blocker at fullback, and the offensive line is still suspect. That unit will eventually play the biggest part in how far the Ravens go this season.

There are other questions about McNair being able to throw the long ball and the Ravens not having a true vertical threat on the outside, but barring major injuries this season should be different offensively than past years. The Ravens have legitimate receivers who can get separation. They have a real quarterback. They have enough skilled players who can offset some of the problems on the offensive line. They've diversified and are using some imagination.

They might have a real offense.

"We looked smooth and comfortable," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel said. "Steve managed the game well, and made good decisions. It was crisp for an opening drive in the first preseason game. We did not design Steve's scramble for the touchdown. It was all him. A little scary, but all him."

McNair said: "It's a good feeling to have a great bunch of guys out there, offensively working hard, especially in the first preseason game. All we wanted to do tonight is just come out and execute, get into a rhythm early, and we did that. I think it's a good sign."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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